July 4, 2013

Daring Katahdin helicopter rescue was unprecedented

An injured hiker is lifted off the Maine mountain in a full-body 'screamer suit.'

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Ned Hamara sat on the unforgiving rocks of the Hunt Trail, two-thirds of the way up Mount Katahdin, and circled his left arm above his head, checking for injury.

click image to enlarge

Ned Hamara, the 62-year-old Texas hiker rescued by heicopter off Mount Katahdin on Monday after a boulder fell on him, recovers at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor on Wednesday.

Photo courtesy Community Relations / Eastern Maine Medical Center. Video courtesy of Dana Francey.

click image to enlarge

A 62-year-old Texas man is shown being airlifted off a hiking trail on Mount Katahdin on July 1 after a large rock fell on him. He is recovering at a Bangor hospital.

Photo by Jensen Bissell

A granite boulder the size of a coffee table had just dislodged from the mountain and pushed him down a steep rock face. The 62-year-old hiker was left to go through the anxious exercise of figuring out just how badly he was hurt.

"I didn't think I was really hurt," Hamara said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his bed at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. "The biggest impact was on my left shoulder. I had no idea how I hurt my foot. There was like a crevice I must have caught my foot on."

He had a full range of motion in his arm, but it was sore, and his left foot hurt. His legs were covered with blood from a gash on his left elbow. His hiking partner, a triathlete, was far above him.

Hamara decided to turn back.

But as he pulled himself up from beneath an outcropping, his shoulder popped free of its socket and he fell. As he collapsed, he realized that his foot was hurt worse than he had realized. The trek down slowed to an excruciatingly painful crawl.

"He was definitely slowing down as we worked our way down," said Dana Francey, a nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center, who was helping Hamara up a steep section when the boulder tumbled.

"We thought we'd have him back to base camp by 7 p.m., but it was probably more like 11 p.m. or midnight at the rate we were going."

Depending on how many volunteers they could find, rangers at Baxter State Park could have sent a rescue team to carry Hamara down the trail in a litter. The treacherous carry would have taken as long as 18 hours, much of it through heavy rain that was approaching.

There was nowhere nearby to land a Maine Forest Service rescue helicopter. But the service had a new option -- a short haul rescue.

A rescuer was lowered on a line from a Huey UH-1 helicopter and strapped Hamara into a harness called a "screamer suit." With the two of them tethered 100 feet below, the helicopter flew to the nearest safe landing site.

The system had been developed over the past year and a half and deployed this spring. Monday's rescue was the Forest Service's first with the new system.

"We basically took an 18-hour carry and turned it into an eight-mile ride," said John Crowley, the Forest Service's chief pilot.

The new rescue system was just one of a series of breaks that got Hamara off Maine's tallest mountain without further injury to him or others.

There was Francey, the nurse, being there when Hamara gashed his elbow, wrapping it in gauze and changing the dressing, which would become saturated, as they passed hikers who offered supplies.

There was the emergency room doctor they encountered just as Hamara aggravated his injury, who put Hamara's shoulder back in place.

And there was the weather, or lack of it. Storm clouds threatened for much of Monday afternoon but the rain held off until Hamara was safely away.

Hamara, who through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009 and reached the summit of Katahdin, knows that hiking has its perils.

A month ago, the retired FBI agent from just north of Houston was hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain when he developed an acute pain in his abdomen. A few days later, he was having surgery to remove his appendix.

(Continued on page 2)

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